We in the Churches of Christ are fond of saying that being an elder of a church is the most important job in the world. I think we may be right. Nothing more dramatically impacts the success of a congregation than the quality of its elders.
As obviously true as this is, isn’t it remarkable how little we do to prepare and train our men for eldership? Imagine that you’ve just been ordained an elder. Where do you turn for training, support, ideas, guidance, encouragement, wisdom, and experience? If you’re very lucky, you get to join an excellent, mutually supportive existing eldership (as I did). But many elders aren’t so fortunate. And even if you are this lucky, you still have a very steep learning curve to overcome.
Naturally, the elders often turn to the ministerial staff for guidance, but the staff may be younger and less experienced than the elders. The staff may have an excellent education in Bible and preaching, but few staffs have been trained on how to oversee a church.
If you look at things in this light, it’s hardly surprising that Churches of Christ rarely grow to be larger than 200 or 300 members. Our average is about 90. A 500-member church will be among the largest in its state, certainly among the top 5% in terms of size.
The fact is that we have a huge void in elder training. I therefore am tremendously appreciative of Abilene Christian and Lipscomb Universities for sponsoring ElderLink. ElderLink is held about 6 times a year across the country to offer one day of classes on a host of topics of interest to elders. The one overarching comment I heard at Atlanta’s ElderLink is just how very appreciative the elders were for the information, encouragement, and support.
But it’s not enough. The needs are huge, and filling the needs is a complex task. An elder of a 500-member church faces radically different issues from the elder of a 50-member church. Some churches have already fought and resolved the “worship wars.” Others are just beginning. Some churches are burdened with managing rapid growth. Others are wondering how to survive as their membership is declining. One day a year is just not enough.
Many denominations have state or regional headquarters with experts equipped to consult with troubled churches. We don’t. Worse yet, our radical autonomy–isolation, really–means that we’ll rarely go to another congregation and ask for help. We see another congregation in our home town as competition, rather than as support. We occasionally ask for advice from churches in other towns, but rarely do we know the other church even well enough to know whether they know what they’re doing.
In fact, one of the most enlightening aspects of ElderLink was the sidebar conversations. Sitting at lunch with other elders and hearing how God is blessing their ministries was a powerful encouragement. There are lots of well-led congregations out there doing some exciting things, but there’s hardly any way to learn from them. I mean, if a church in Mississippi were to figure out how to completely solve the problem of racism and poverty in its hometown, we’d never hear about it unless the national media were pick the story up–a very unlikely possibility.
The one institution we have that has the resources to really help is the Christian college. They have the facilities, staff, and talent to teach courses that would genuinely help. Already, some lectureships have elder tracks (Harding does, for example).
However, our lectureships are largely planned by preachers for preachers. We elders need guidance on delivering pastoral care, on conflict management, on counseling, on how to hire and fire, on how to support our preachers, on how to read and study the Bible, how to disfellowship a sinner, how to create racial diversity, how to run a missions program … This list goes on, and yet these practical topics rarely make the lectureship agenda.
And where’s the lectureship that tells you how to run a literacy program for the poor? or a soup kitchen? or a jobs skill program? We talk more and more about being “missional,” which is excellent, but don’t bother to train our leaders on the nuts and bolts.
The Churches of Christ do not have a culture that encourages elders to travel and attend classes. Rather, we send our preachers. Worse yet, we are so pig-headed that we won’t let our elders go to certain universities’ lectureships, for fear they’ll be corrupted by the “liberals” at Pepperdine or ACU. The elders need to regain control of their congregations and go where the best education can be found.
I’d go so far as to say that we ought to experiment with some lectureships designed solely for elders. They should be begun at a college that’s relatively neutral in the progressive vs. conservative ideological battle. Both sides of the tough questions should be presented and the elders trusted to have some judgment (isn’t that how they got to be elders?)
Over time, it may be possible to combine the two lectureships, but having a separate lectureship for elders will help create the climate that it’s important for the elders to get some schooling and that they can’t just send the preacher. They need to go themselves.
Moreover, it will force our universities to think through the problem from the perspective of the elderships. What training do elders need? What issues do they face? Rather than filling a schedule with interesting stuff, the schools should ask: If we trained elders just like we train preachers, what would be in the curriculum?
This will require putting some elders (who are neither Bible professors nor preachers) on the planning committee. And it will take some time to find the experts. We know the men who can preach a knockdown sermon, but we don’t know the elders who can comfort the bereaved with Godly compassion and teach others to do the same.
Finally, I’d point out that most churches have no budget for elder training. The preachers often get a paid seminar or two, but the elders are on their own. The solution is for the colleges to cooperate to present much the same materials around the country. Most elders won’t fly to Pepperdine when they can drive to Searcy. Just as ElderLink has done, the best model would be an elder-focused lectureship that travels from campus to campus.
The idea would be to encourage elders to spend 3 or 4 days in intensive study and interacting with other elders. Breakfast and lunch should be on campus so the elders are encouraged to talk to each other. The teachers and lecturers should mingle for the same reason.
If this is done thoughtfully enough, elders will be exposed to both sides of the controversies of the day, and so understand one another better. Better yet, elderships in the same town might just see each other as mutual supporters and encouragers, rather than competitors. And elders will better see their jobs as involving the mission of God rather than refereeing fights over song selection.